Binti was one of the best entries in Tor’s first wave of novellas last year. It’s a remarkable book that takes a lot of the usual conceits around first contact stories and stands them on their head. I talked to Nnedi Okorafor about Binti, her process, the themes of the novella and how her academic background influences her writing.
How does your process change when writing novellas over novels?
I don’t write to length. Binti just came about as it came about. What I mean by that is that I didn’t set out to write a novella when I wrote Binti. I had no idea what I was writing when I started. I just wrote until it was done. And when it was, I looked at the length and then said, “I guess it’s a novella.” I’m like that with every story I write. I rarely know what it is until it’s done.
You work in multiple genres and are best known for YA, children’s lit and science fiction. Is there one you enjoy more? What changes in how you write from genre to genre?
I have many sides and layers and I don’t like to stay in one place for long (when it comes to my stories, at least), so I enjoy it all.
What changes between genres? Nothing, at least not consciously. I just write the story and the story takes the steering wheel. The world is a big place and one I see through my eyes is even bigger. There’s room for them all to coexist yet still be unique.
How does your academic background influence your fiction work?
Greatly, but not in the way most would think. I come from a journalistic background and that affects the way I write. Scholarly writing is written to be read by a few with deeply specialized backgrounds. Journalistic writing is meant to be read and understood by the masses, regardless of expertise. So I write clear and uncluttered prose that some have even described as “simple”. This is good for YA and fine for adults.
However, my academic background and the fact that I dwell within the university has cultivated a love for learning and information and dusty libraries and obsessive research and analysis. I am around so many different types of passionately meticulous people who have dedicated their lives to [fill in the discipline]. Within the university, I see a type of power that is unique, subtle, sometimes convoluted. All this has shown up in several of my works in various ways.
How did the novella evolve as you wrote it?
It came to me and just wrote it.
One of the things that impressed me most about Binti was the depth of the world building. It feels like a complex, huge world that doesn’t stop at the boundaries of the story. How much planning did you do for the novella? Is there other work planned in this universe?
This story was born from a plethora of emotions, events and experiences. Two years ago, I went to South America and the Middle East for the first time in my life (have since been back to the Middle East) and I did it despite the severe disapproval of my family (I’m very very close to my family, so this was epic). I also left Chicago to teach in Buffalo, NY…the last time I’d lived in a different state was when I was a baby; I’ve lived in the suburbs of Chicago for most of my life. I’m afraid of flying, I fear change, but have an adventurous heart. I love all things Star Wars and loath Star Trek. I’ve never liked the idea of writing a story set in outer space; never liked the idea of dwelling in a place where I couldn’t breathe (whatever place I write about, I dwell). I like to challenge myself.
All this led to me writing Binti and when I did, I knew her world so so well. Her world is huge and diverse and complicated and I’m not through writing about her or her world.
Along similar lines, the tiers of prejudice in the novella, from how Binti’s people are viewed by some others to the colonialist approach the University takes, and the consequences of that, are extraordinarily nuanced. Could you speak more about that?
Yeah, that was real, right? It’s all real, though it’s fiction. Truth can be spoken in many ways. There’s an image of a Himba woman in a supermarket…I love that image because it speaks volumes. She’s dressed in the traditional way of her people, yet she’s in the now, she’s participating, she probably has a cell phone, or maybe she doesn’t. This is one of the themes at the core of Binti.
However, there is always a price to going out and learning and participating. Change always comes. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing and change does not by definition kill culture/traditions/a people.
Having a University as a power group in a story like this is unusual. Did that come about as a function of your academic background?
Yes. What I’d like to add is that there is a strong thread in this novella about miscommunication and misunderstanding and how so much of this stems from fear and ignorance and history and a lack of being able to get out of one’s perspective. The key was the ability to let go (not of the past, but of the ego) and make one’s self vulnerable. To do this requires a different kind of courage. I think we can all learn from the Binti and Okwu battled it out. I know I did.
What are you working on next?
Akata Witch 2, which we are now calling Akata Warrior (the new tentative titled) is due out next year. I’m currently in the editing process with that manuscript. I’m also working on a brand new novel called Remote Control. And recently, a film concept called Camel Racer that I co-created with Kenyan film director Wanuri Kahiu was chosen for development by Triggerfish Animation Studios (South Africa), a project supported by Disney. Exciting stuff.